Revisiting Elizabeth, 1917

ELIZABETH, NJ — The Historical Society of Elizabeth presented “The Elizabeth Forum 2017: Elizabeth 1917” last week to 90 high school and middle school students at the Elizabeth Public Library.

The students hailed from four of the city’s high schools — Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy, Elizabeth High School Frank J. Cicarell Academy, Alexander Hamilton Preparatory Academy, and John E. Dwyer Technology Academy — along with eighth-grade students from Winfield Scott School No. 2 and Joseph Battin School No. 4.

The Elizabeth Forum, launched in 2001, explores the impact of immigrant populations and their traditions on the city of Elizabeth.

This year’s forum focused on the city in 1917, a year of major development in civic engagement, cultural advancement and economic progress, according to the HSENJ. The HSENJ, in collaboration with this year’s forum panelists, addressed various topics, including the effects of immigrants on the community, the social and economic impact of World War I, community developments taking place during that time and how civic organizations shaped the city.

Forum panelists included Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage; John Prescott, history coordinator for the Union County Office of Cultural and Heritage Affairs; Kenneth Ward, president of the Elizabeth Historical Society; Bill Mealia, board member of the Rotary Club of Elizabeth and Jim Duffy, treasurer of the Rotary Club of Elizabeth. The forum’s moderator was Stanley Neron, president of the Elizabeth Board of Education.

According to Aimee Fernandez-Puente, co-chair of the forum and associate at the Elizabeth library, the idea for the forum was conceived in 1999.

“The forum is a way of creating a historical narrative that highlights the common grounds and reinforces how the imported immigrant traditions change and energize American traditions and makes it recognizable for the city’s multiple ethnic and racial groups,” Fernandez-Puente told LocalSource in a May 24 email.

According to Fernandez-Puente, the inaugural Elizabeth Forum was held in 2001.
“The presenter, Yamil Avivi, a graduate of New York University and a Fulbright scholar, became interested in the distinctive features of the two Colombia communities, one in the U.S. and one in Colombia, South America,” Fernandez-Puente said. “His Fulbright scholarship took him to Cali, Colombia, where he interviewed residents who had immigrated to the U.S. and returned to their homeland. What exactly were the gains and losses of this experience?”

Fernandez-Puente said that Avivi’s work set a standard for subsequent Elizabeth Forums, exploring such topics as the American urban experience, contributions of newer immigrants to American culture compared with older immigrants, and how the process of assimilation has changed since the beginning of the 20th century.

Diana Vivanco, also a co-chair of the forum, told LocalSource that the forum was created as a result of the HSENJ’s mission to preserve and research the city’s rich

“It is to document the people, places and events that shape our past, exploring the social, political and economic life of Elizabeth through the 20th century and beyond,” Vivanco said in a May 24 email. “The forum is seen as a way of achieving this goal through presenting the vital history of Elizabeth, illuminating present issues facing our community, fostering a factual context for current and future policy decisions, and designing a historical narrative that strengthens the common ground of the city’s diverse communities, including the African-American and immigrant populations.”

Prescott told LocalSource that he has worked with HSENJ president, Ken Ward, on Four Centuries in a Weekend, a county-wide program that takes place in the fall, and that he enjoys working collaboratively on projects such as the Elizabeth Forum.

“I enjoy the cooperation and collaboration that we share in our common cause of promoting and sharing the region’s history,” Prescott said in a May 25 email.
In preparing for the forum, Prescott said, he worked on presenting a broad overview of both state and Union County history leading up to and including 1917. Topics presented by Prescott included immigration, education, economic and cultural trends.

Prescott said that he enjoys hearing from students.
“This is their community, and I welcome the opportunity to hear what their concerns and comments are,” Prescott said. “Communication is about sharing and understanding, so I look forwarding to hearing from their perspective regarding the needs of the community.”

According to Vivanco, the focus of the forum has always surrounded the diverse ethnic and racial groups that have formed and enhanced the identity of Elizabeth.
“The initiative of this forum, as with previous forums, is to start the dialogue on how our past relates to our present and what correlations exist between the two,” Vivanco said. “For this specific forum, we want the students who attend to walk away with a better understanding of the history of their city and the impacts that its diverse ethnic and racial groups had on defining community and fostering civic engagement.”